Salem Baptist and Willow Creek Build Bridges

We have a tradition the last few years at our church to focus our services on Martin Luther King weekend toward bridging the racial divide. I’m still glowing from the joy of our services yesterday, when we partnered with Salem Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Illinois. This partnership is not new – we’ve been building friendships with the great people at Salem ever since our pastors, Bill Hybels and Rev. James Meeks, began their unique relationship a few years ago. Since then, core members of their church and ours have taken an annual Justice Journey together – visiting the key sights in the South where major events connected to the Civil Rights movement took place. Bill has preached at Salem Baptist, our high school ministries have visited one another, and I am growing a friendship with Salem’s arts leader, Walter Owens, and his wife Terri, who is a pastor and teacher.

Salem brought one of their choirs and a small band to serve us, and believe me, our church was rockin’! Then I had the privilege of interviewing Bill and Rev. Meeks, to explore together what we can practically do to right the wrongs of our country’s history and seek justice for people of all colors. We unpacked some of our learnings from the outstanding book, Divided by Faith. That book challenges the assumption of most white Americans that if we are not racist as individuals, if we are open to friendships with people from another race and very respectful, then we don’t need to worry about “the race issue.” What we fail to take into account are the structural inequities in our country, as a result of 400 years of enslaving African Americans and then decades of Jim Crow laws. Rev. Meeks was quick to acknowledge that none of us created these problems – but we must do what we can to make things right. The playing field simply is not level when it comes to education, employment, housing, and overall opportunities for black Americans. I urge you to read Divided by Faith and allow it to stretch your thinking and make you uncomfortable.

The most segregated hour of the week in America is still Sunday morning at ll:00 am. Most of us worship with people who look just like us. There are many reasons for this reality, but we are learning that when we move out of our comfort zones, when church becomes a more diverse place, we are all enriched. Whereas about ten years ago Willow was about 98% Caucasian, we now enjoy at least 20% non-Caucasians. This is a much more accurate reflection of the growing diversity within twenty minutes of our campus.

On this Martin Luther King day, I want to be a part of the solution. Not only do I want to continue building friendships across the racial divide – I also want to figure out what I can do on a practical level to help right some of the injustices that still exist. I’m not yet sure what that will entail, but I look forward to figuring it out in community. How grateful I am that the dream of Dr. King is fundamentally rooted in the heart of God. One day we will all worship together from every nation and every tongue. As Bill said yesterday, we need to taste that experience so much more this side of heaven.

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